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Photo backdrop: Tongpop by Telly Tuita, Bergman Gallery
A ruptured ACL is a potentially career-ending injury for an athlete. That wasn’t the case for 22-year-old netballer Ainsleyana Puleiata, who’s done it twice. She talks to Francesca Emms about where she gets her strength.
When Ainsleyana Puleiata found herself captain of Samoa’s netball team at the Oceania World Cup Qualifiers in Fiji this July, she got a bit choked up. “Wearing the uniform of Tifa Moana, with the Samoan logo on my heart, and singing the Samoan national anthem, I almost cried. It was a very proud moment.”
The rising netball star from Porirua has come a long way since 2019, when she was facing a gruelling recovery from a ruptured anterior cruciate ligament (ACL). It was the second time Ana had damaged the same knee. Looking down the barrel of more surgery and many months of rehabilitation, she says, “I kind of had a mental breakdown.”
According to the NZACL Registry, sporting accidents are responsible for 82% of ACL injuries in New Zealand, with “high-demand pivoting sports”, like netball, causing the majority. Women are five times as likely to rupture their ACL as men. The registry has found that less than half of the athletes who go through reconstructive surgery and rehabilitation get back to where they were pre-injury. That Ana has been through it and made a comeback, twice, is testament to her courage and determination.
Ana lives in Porirua with her mum, dad, and three younger brothers. Her parents, Diana and Fa’auliuli, were both born in Samoa and moved to New Zealand as children. Her dad is from Magiagi and her mum is from Vaiusu. “It’s hard to connect to my roots being so far away,” says Ana, “especially with covid. I sometimes feel disconnected not being able to be there and experience the culture. I took my trips to Samoa for granted.” Samoan is spoken at home, though Ana says she’s not fluent. “I understand it. If someone says, ‘Make me a cup of tea,’ in Samoan, I’ll reply in English, ‘Yeah, sure’.” She worries that she sometimes neglects her Samoan culture by living “in a Western, Kiwi way. My identity is Kiwi and Samoan. I need to find a balance.”
Her faith is an important part of her identity and a source of strength. “My religion is a part of who I am. It helps a lot when I’m trying to find confidence in myself, when things are tough, or when I need a reminder that where I am is alright and I just need to keep going and trust that my time will come.”
Ana went to a small primary school in Porirua. Being a bit “thin on numbers” the school, Windley, only had one netball team, so when Ana was only nine she was playing with 11- and 12-year-olds. When she moved to St Mary’s College in Wellington, the opportunities expanded. Ana played in the Senior A team from 2014 to 2017. The school has a good reputation for netball. “Back in the day” she enjoyed playing with people like Whitney Souness, Mona Lisa Groom, and Colleen Faleafaga. “And now, it’s really nice to see young players coming through from St. Mary’s. The game is still strong there.”
While she was at college Ana also became interested in rugby. Her parents were hesitant, “because rugby’s such a full on contact sport,” Ana explains. She managed to persuade them to let her join St Mary’s teams, telling them, “I’ve got thighs! I’ve got big thunder thighs that will protect me! It’s all good.” However, during a rugby training game in 2017, Ana ruptured the ACL in her left knee for the first time. The average person in a guided rehabilitation programme might gradually increase their activity. But for someone like Ana, who plays sport at a high level, the only option is surgical reconstruction and comprehensive rehabilitation. She underwent surgery, then worked through a nine-month rehab programme.
When Ana returned to sport she was named captain of the Central Manawa team for the 2019 NNL season, but in a pre-season match, her first game back, she ruptured her left ACL again. Ana says the recovery from her second injury “was really, really hard.” Physically she could do it, but mentally she struggled. The hardest part? “Watching people play netball. I just couldn’t take it. You really want to go out there and train as well. It was really hard to be on the sideline.” She had to remove herself from training and games for a while. “I kind of drifted away from the support that was there. I was really grateful, but that environment wasn’t good for me, mentally.” While she was off court Ana focused on her rehab and her studies. She now holds a Bachelor of Health degree from Victoria University.
Ana’s rehab trainers were Malcolm and Mallory Toeagia, co-founders of Centurion Athletic Performance. They recommended she read The Mamba Mentality, Kobe Bryant’s account of his life and basketball career. “I started reading it and I was in tears because I was like, ‘That’s me!’ reading about his his injuries and his setbacks. I started to think, maybe I could do what he did and come back stronger.”
In early 2020, after a tough year of rehab, Ana was ready to make her second comeback. In September she was named for the New Zealand under-21 netball training squad for the 2021 Netball World Youth Cup and the 2021 Central Manawa team. She was also awarded Victoria University’s 2021 Pasifika Sportsperson of the Year. In June this year she was selected for the Central Pulse and will be playing in the next ANZ Premiership.
It’s no surprise that Ana’s parents are very proud of their daughter. “They were my number one Uber,” she laughs. “I was always calling them, ‘Mum, I’ve got training here. Can you pick me up?’ or ‘Dad, can you drive me here? Can you pay my fees?’ They’re really supportive. They were always at every game that I had, whether it was netball or rugby.” Says Ana, “If you have a doubt, or a low moment on court, it’s nice to look out to the crowd and see your family there.”
Ana’s brothers are also part of her support system, having been dragged around to training and games since day one. “AJ (aged 21) will always give his critical observation on the game, but is always proud and supportive of me. And my two little brothers Atticus (5) and Alexander (2) will always crush me with cuddles, especially after a hard loss or when I wasn’t performing to my best.”
If she could give younger netballers any advice, it would be to take their time. “I felt like I was rushing my sporting career to get to the top. When I should have been enjoying the journey, and just having fun.” Ana says it’s advice her younger self should have heeded. “It took me a long time to learn, but young people have a lot of time. I didn’t think I did, but I do. I’ll get there when I get there.”
Get where? Ana is excited to be joining the Pulse as a full-time contracted player this season. But maybe, down the line, she will get to play in a black dress. Watch this space.